School & District Management

States’ Graduation Data Seen as Undercounting Dropouts

By Debra Viadero — June 23, 2005 4 min read
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A sharply worded report released June 23 takes states to task for calculating graduation rates in ways that it contends yield artificially low estimates of the nation’s dropout problem—and it upbraids federal education officials for letting them do it.

Read the full report, “Getting Honest About Grad Rates: How States Play the Numbers and Students Lose,” from the Education Trust.

“We’ve got to end this rampant dishonesty about graduation rates,” Kati Haycock, the director of the Education Trust, the Washington-based research and advocacy group that put together the report, said in a statement. “And it would sure help if the U.S. Department of Education stopped sitting on the sidelines and worked to put an end to these shameful practices.”

Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, states were required in January to provide statewide graduation rates for the 2002-03 school year. But, according to the Education Trust’s study, three states—Alabama, Louisiana, and Massachusetts—did not report the data at all. Another seven states failed to break down the data, as required under the law, to show separate graduation rates for certain groups of students, such as those with disabilities, from low-income families, and from various racial and ethnic minorities.

While some states are developing better systems for tracking high school students, the study says, others have reported “implausibly high” graduation rates or used “ludicrous” methods to calculate them. One example the report points to is New Mexico, where state officials report a 89 percent graduation rate. The report says the state arrives at that figure by calculating the number of high school seniors who receive diplomas.

“This ignores entirely the number of students who dropped out in the 9th, 10th, and 11th grades,” the report says.

Likewise, it says, North Carolina’s 97 percent graduation rate is based on the number of graduates who received their diplomas in four years or less, a formula that excludes dropouts altogether.

A spokesman for the Council of Chief State School Officers, a Washington-based group that represents state superintendents, said most states don’t have tracking systems that are sophisticated enough to yield solid graduation-rate information. Experts agree that the most accurate way to track such rates would be to follow a cohort of entering 9th graders throughout their high school careers, regardless of where they go. Only a handful of states, though, can track students who disappear from the enrollment rolls to determine whether they have transferred to other schools, entered alternative programs, or dropped out.

“We think it’s a serious mistake to make the assumption that states are playing with the numbers on graduation rates, when we don’t have common data sets to be able to gauge accurate graduation rates,” said Scott S. Montgomery, the CCSSO’s chief of staff.

State Goals Called Too Low

A major part of the problem, the Education Trust report argues, is that the federal Education Department gives the states only broad outlines on how to calculate graduation rates and allows them to choose among several methods.

Susan Aspey, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, said federal officials put together a study group in 2003 to give states guidance on the best interim methods for calculating graduation rates, to use while states are building better data-collection systems. That guidance has yet to be issued.

“We are very concerned that the graduation data doesn’t accurately reflect what’s happening in the states,” Ms. Aspey said in a statement.

Equally troubling, though, according to the Education Trust, are the low graduation-rate goals states have set for themselves under the No Child Left Behind law. The 3-year-old law imposes a two-edged requirement on schools: They must show progress educating all students to state standards in reading and mathematics, and also meet state goals for improving graduation rates. The report notes, however, that 34 states have set graduation-rate targets that are lower than the rates they reported earlier this year.

Also, two states—New Mexico and South Carolina—have said schools do not have to make any annual improvements in their graduation rates to comply with the law. In California, Louisiana, Maryland, and North Carolina, schools are only required to improve their graduation rates by one-tenth of 1 percent per year. Schools in 31 other states can meet their goals for adequate yearly progress under the law if they make any gains at all in raising graduation rates, according to the report.

The report warns that the methods states are using for counting graduates, most of which produce higher graduation rates than estimations that independent analysts have made using different calculations, could be masking the true extent of dropout problems across the country.

“If we want high schools that truly serve all students and prepare them for work, college, and life,” the report concludes, “we first need to know how many students are leaving school altogether.”

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